WASHINGTON D.C. - Culture is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the world of sports. Yes, it’s meaningful, but oftentimes it’s only seen at the surface. The Boston Celtics proudly rep their culture as a team and as an organization. From the coaches and players vocalizing it in press scrums, to teammates picking one another up on the floor, the 2018-19 Celtics have recently made it a point to play, as they call it, “Celtics basketball.”
The Washington Wizards, on the other hand, are currently struggling in the culture department. Earlier in the season, it was reported that the team went through a turbulent practice involving players voicing their issues, arguing with coaches, and even Bradley Beal yelling at long-time General Manger Ernie Grunfeld. The Wizards were (and still are) in a rough spot, but much of this was pent-up frustration from years and years of settling for mediocrity and refusing to make necessary changes. As Beal put it, “I’ve been dealing with this $@#& for seven years. It starts top-down.” Despite some improved play, the Wizards still remain largely unchanged in terms of internal personnel and operations, and it remains a problem.
Less than a month ago, the Celtics were sitting at 10-10 and going through a bit of an identity crisis. The players were calling themselves out in the media while simultaneously preaching accountability. Al Horford was among the multiple players who said they “weren’t playing Celtics basketball.” Brad Stevens holds himself accountable for that. The players hold themselves accountable for that. Management holds themselves accountable for that. In Boston, it really does start at the top, and the trickle down effect is extremely beneficial for the franchise. In other cities around the league, that effect isn’t so helpful. Boston has won seven in a row, and those issues seem to be a thing of the past.
Being in Washington for the Celtics’ overtime win against the Wizards on Wednesday put both teams up front and center. Sometimes you don’t fully realize something until you see it up close, and last night was a peek into the contrasts between these two franchises.
It was the best of cultures, it was the worst of cultures.
Capital One Arena was filled with Celtics fans on Wednesday night, which isn’t that out of the ordinary for a Boston road game. In fact, Marcus Morris said it himself, “Celtics fans travel well.” During warm ups, one side of the court saw the Celtics going through their pregame routines in a pretty enthusiastic fashion. Players were interacting with one another, some even playing 1-on-1. The other side of the court was quite the opposite. Wizards’ players weren’t interacting with each other, nor were they as lively as Boston. There certainly didn’t seem to be a common goal, and if there was, it looked quite individualistic. Fast forward to the game. A Celtic drops to the floor and teammates rush over to get help him up. For the Wizards, that’s not the case.
When players and coaches have bought into a team and its culture, it’s visible. Whether it’s Jay Larranaga and Marcus Smart working tirelessly together before each game, or Alex Barlow guiding Robert Williams through his rookie season, the evidence with this Celtics team is there. Last week, Boston had four days in between games, so Brad Stevens scheduled a day off. Every single player came in for individual workouts with the coaching staff, rather than take the off day. If that doesn’t say something about Brad Stevens’ philosophy, I’m not sure what does.
It may seem like an overreaction to look at little things like this, but people who have been watching the Wizards for the last three-plus seasons know that this is a microcosm of a much bigger issue that, once again, starts at the top. The Wizards have a great amount of talent that could be better utilized by new management and new coaches. Washington fans have been calling for this for a long time now, but instead, the team stays stagnant, and ultimately toxic.
At Wednesday morning’s shootaround at Georgetown University, Brad Stevens was asked about Kyrie Irving’s leadership role with his teammates while also being the best player on the floor. The Celtics head coach quickly responded by saying that he has the same expectations for Irving as he does for the rest of the roster.
“We want all fifteen of our guys to take on that role,” said Stevens. “That is an important part of our whole deal. If you're young, if you're old, bring something authentic to the table. You’re expected to lead in your own way. Obviously some voices are going to be stronger than others, because just naturally some guys are louder. And then also, some guys are just more accomplished. But we want everybody to feel like they have ownership and have a sense of say from a leadership standpoint.”
When you hear quotes like this, and then watch Horford, Irving, and their teammates pick one another up, vocally and physically, it shows how effective good culture can be. Placing them next to a team that’s struggling with their philosophy will really put it into perspective. So next time you hear a player discuss the expectation of playing “Celtics basketball,” appreciate it, because it makes all the difference.